A new report published on Monday by Iran Human Rights found the number of executions of drug-related offenders in Iran has tripled in 2021 compared to the same period in the past two years.
In the first four months of 2021 alone, at least 82 prisoners were executed in Iran, 22 of whom were convicted of drug-related offenses. By contrast, in the whole of 2020, the total number of convicts known to have been executed for drug offenses in Iran was just 25.
This and the NGO’s 13th annual report on the death penalty have once again brought to the fore the lack of official data on this issue in the Islamic Republic. None of these 82 incidents had been announced by official sources. As such, the true figure may be far higher.
The report also states that in the first four months of 2021, more Baluch citizens were hanged in Iran than in the same period in the last two years. Death sentences handed down to members of religious minority groups in Iran tend to have occurred without a fair trial, and often for political reasons.
IranWire spoke to sociologist Elie Khorsandfar on question of why drug abuse is still such a pervasive problem in Iranian society – and whether harsh punishments, including the death penalty, are the right way to address it.
According to Iran Human Rights, of the 82 prisoners executed in the first four months of 2021, four were women, eight were hanged over political and security-related convictions, and 22 were hanged for drug-related offenses.
Reports released in the same period in 2019 and 2020 show that seven and nine people were executed on drug-related charges in the same respective periods. Why the crackdown, and what will it achieve?
The Basis of the Death Penalty in Iranian Law
Amendments to Iran’s Anti-Narcotics Law in 1997 and 2011 ushered in the use of the death penalty for a wide variety of drug-related offenses, including the possession of as little as 30 grams of heroin or planting cannabis seeds.
In November 2017 a third set of amendments increased the amount of illegal drugs that would subject dealers to a death sentence. But nonetheless, the number of drug-related executions remains high.
Despite these harsh punishments having been in place for decades, drug addiction and trafficking remain rife in Iranian society. Sociologist and women’s rights activist Elie Khorsandfar told IranWire the explanation for this is simple.
"When governments systematically kill citizens and call it execution,” she says, “they reproduce violence. At the same time, governments that have the death penalty built into their legal system are repressive governments.
“In such societies, individual freedoms, social security, and agreement on common values are generally lost, and society becomes abnormal. Individuals in abnormal societies are, on the one hand, under pressure to embody society’s norms and values, and on the other hand, live under the pressure of social reality.”
Drug use, Khorsandfar believes, is one of the inevitable consequences of this discordant state of being. At the same time, she believes that in a society riven by economic inequality, the death penalty only makes the situation worse.
“The death penalty reproduces risk-taking and the reproduction of crime and violence,” she says. “People, knowing they may be killed by government, take the risk of drug trafficking so they at least do not have financial problems during their lifetime."
Four major types of crime in Iran are subject to the death penalty: murder, sexual crimes, "corruption on earth" (the scope of which is very wide), and moharebeh, which is broadly interpreted as rising up against the Islamic Republic. Those convicted of carrying, possessing, and trafficking narcotics who are sentenced to death are generally convicted of "corruption on earth".
In 2017, the Iranian judiciary sought to abolish the death penalty for people convicted of drug-related offenses. Ultimately the Iranian parliament amended the Anti-Narcotics Law so that in principle, it should only apply to the ringleaders of armed gangs involved in trafficking drugs, and major producers.
Despite this, more than 5,000 people convicted of drug-related crimes are still on death row in Iranian prisons and 2021 has already seen a sharp rise in drug crime-related executions. Why has the situation apparently remained unchanged - and even worsened - despite the changes to the law?
In Khorsandfar’s view, “The political system of the Islamic Republic of Iran is based on religious ideology, and the law is derived from this ideology. Therefore, the Iranian legal system is not thinking of reforming or changing the punishments."
Crackdown on Marginalized Groups
In its latest report, Iran Human Rights also referred to a surge in executions of Baluch citizens in the first four months of 2021. A wave of executions began in Sistan and Baluchestan in February 2021 amid popular protests over the shooting of impoverished Baluch fuel carriers.
The executions were accompanied by strong condemnation from human rights observers wherever they came to light. One of these cases was that of Javid Dehghan Khald, a Baluch detainee executed in Zahedan Prison, who is thought to have been the 17th Baluch citizen executed by the regime in 2021.
Dehghan had been sentenced to death in May 2017 by Branch One of the Revolutionary Court of Zahedan, on being convicted of moharebeh. The verdict came despite his insistence that the case against him was based on a forced confession.
Many Baloch activists believe that the execution of Baloch citizens is for solely political motives, and is aimed at creating fear in the region. Khorsandfar agrees. “Especially when we face social and protest movements, legislators prefer to use the death penalty as a tool of repression and intimidation. Therefore, they do not try to change the law."
The Appearance of Management
Last year Iran ranked the highest in the world in the number of executions known to have been carried out by the authorities, both per capita and overall. It comes even as countless researchers and experts have cast doubt on the death sentence’s validity as a means of reducing crimes such as drug trafficking.
Elie Khorsandfar believes that no social harms occur in a vacuum – and as one intensifies, another appears. “As poverty spreads, addiction increases. The spread of addiction leads to an increase in drug dealing. At the same time, prostitution is on the rise and the issue of working children has been highlighted. Obviously, we are facing a system that does not care about the fundamental elimination of social harms, and has a delusion that it is managing the society properly."
In Khorsandfar’s view, the way out of the addiction crisis involving parts of Iranian society is to improve the economic situation and social security, and to recognize individual freedoms. "Unless society becomes a place where citizens feel safe, these problems will not be resolved."